Monthly Archives: June 2012

Exercise and depression – my experience

I was quite interested to read in the papers last week about some research into exercise and depression which appeared to have found that exercise does not help depression. Reading into it a bit further, it appears that this is NOT necessarily what the research found at all. Instead, it found that interventions to encourage people to exercise did not have much long-term impact, which isn’t quite the same thing.

It led me to think about my own experience of exercise and depression last year. When I’d heard the snippet on the radio news about the report, the first thing I quipped was that the researchers obviously hadn’t ‘prescribed’ Zumba as the exercise to try out! Obviously, this was a joke, but it was also a reflection of how useful Zumba had been to me last autumn.

Around the time I started this blog – and a little bit before – I hit a really bad patch. I was burned out, tired, had had a bad experience with a consultant and altogether, pretty down. I was struggling to function with everyday things, crying a lot and it was a massive effort just to get out of bed. I really didn’t want to see or be with people and I couldn’t stop obsessing about the horrible consultant, or about my palindromic rheumatism.

About the same time I’d found a local Zumba class and had started going as I’d previously really enjoyed it as a form of exercise. I found that it really lifted my spirits and that I really enjoyed myself during the class. When I realised how depressed I’d become, I sat down and wrote myself an action plan. I decided to stop pressuring myself to do any work and cleared the decks for at least a month to concentrate on my recovery. Exercise and going to Zumba was an important part of that recovery. I also decided to see the Dr and to ask for anti-depressants. Although I’ve been depressed a number of times before, and for substantially longer, I had never taken antidepressants, but this time, I felt that I needed them.

The GP asked me the standard questions about depression – about my eating and sleeping habits, about my energy levels, difficulty concentrating and about my mood. She also asked me about enjoyment and pleasure – whether I was getting any. “Yes” I said, “but only during Zumba class”. “And is there anything you look forward to?” she asked. I struggled to think of anything I was looking forward to before answering “Yes! My Zumba class!” The Dr decided (perhaps on the strength of these two answers) not to prescribe anti-depressants, to recommend counselling and advised me to keep continue going to Zumba.

While I wouldn’t be as flippant as to say that Zumba ‘cured’ my depression, it was an important element in my recovery. There were some days where I spent the whole day in bed crying, but for a whole hour during Zumba, I stopped. Sometimes I even felt happy. Even if it was only fleeting, those moments of pleasure and happiness were a light during a dark time. I prioritised going to the classes, saw an excellent counsellor, started the blog, took St John’s Wort and started meditating again. I also told everyone I knew and was very open about being depressed. I felt that it meant that I did not have to put on an act, which was an additional pressure I did not want.

Gradually, probably because of ALL of those things, the darkness lifted and I realised that I was no longer depressed. Would I have recovered as quickly without my exercise fix? We’ll never know. I do know that I didn’t go to Zumba because the Dr had told me to. I went because I enjoyed it.  I went because the morning classes gave me a reason to get out of bed, to get dressed and to leave the house. I knew that if I did not do those things, then I would not get my ‘happy fix’.

I believe that people’s relation to exercise is very individual – lots of people on the Guardian blog quote exercising outdoors or running as their saviour. Although I cycled throughout my depression, and it did make me feel good, it didn’t have the same emotional or physical impact on me as the Zumba. It wasn’t just ‘exercise’ that helped me, it was the type of exercise I’d chosen. My class is a dance class with a friendly atmosphere and a great teacher with a sense of fun. Not someone shouting at us to move our bodies or feel the burn, but someone who encouraged us to laugh along and to enjoy ourselves. It was also an exercise which gave me positive feelings about my body when part of the root of my depression was negative feelings about my body and my PR. Would the gym have given me an equivalent ‘high’. I very much doubt it? In fact, I suspect it may have made me feel worse!

I don’t see the counsellor any more – in fact, just a few sessions with her were enough. But I am still meditating and needless to say, still Zumba-ing. Even though I’m a lot happier in myself, my Zumba fix is still crucial for both my physical AND emotional well being. It’ll take more than a bunch of scientists to convince me otherwise.

Drawing conclusions is never easy

My experiment with antibiotic therapy will soon come to a close. I’m due to see my consultant at the end of next week, and the new GP the following Monday. Things had improved quite a lot in March and April with fewer flare-ups than I would otherwise expect. Energy levels were still pants, but I don’t know that the antibiotics would have improved that aspect of the condition or not.

Things took a turn for the worse in May. I had some kind of pain or flare up for half of the month. Most flare ups weren’t particularly BAD or debilitating, but it did lead me to wonder that perhaps my arthritis was just mild in March and April rather than it being due of the antibiotics working any magic. So far in June, I’ve had pain almost every day. Again, nothing too debilitating, although annoyingly it’s been in my knees more times than I would like. Nothing’s been so bad in the past week that I’d need to take any time off work, but it is still pain and I’d rather not have it!

So, I’m forced to wonder that if it is working, is it working enough? Should I take it for another three months to see if it’s stopping all the really BAD attacks, or should I just give up? Should I see if I get worse if I stop taking it? Or should I move straight onto methotrexate?

I’m not that disappointed – after all, at least I haven’t had any really debilitating flare ups in the past three or four months. But I’m just weary of all the questions and decision-making. Not for the first time, I wish that the medical profession understood my condition better. I wish there weren’t so many uncertain choices to make. And I wish that the drugs on offer didn’t have so many scary-sounding side effects.

On the positive side, my energy levels have also been inconsistent – which is a positive thing, because it’s meant that some days, I’ve had lots of energy reserves! On some days, I’m still waking up feeling as if I’ve had no sleep at all. On others, meanwhile, I’ve had an excess of energy! I even managed to find enough energy at the end of a working day to dance on stage with Angelique Kidjo when she played Manchester, (along with around 15 other people). It was a totally exhilarating experience and I was so proud of feeling brave enough to do it! I’ve managed to be relatively consistent with going to zumba and am still cycling most of the time. Some days, I’ve even had enough energy to cook a proper meal at the end of the day. It happens so sporadically during the working week that it seems like a major achievement whenever I do manage it!

I’ve also been assessed for Access to Work benefit, which is something that I only recently found that I was eligible for. I was surprised to find that the in-work assessment was actually useful than I expected with a number of suggestions and recommendations that I might follow up, whether or not I get funding for them. I’ll write in more detail about it in another blog – probably when I get the assessment back in writing.  I’ve actually got quite a lot of work on at the moment – hence the scarcity of blog posts – but I haven’t forgotten that the blog exists and will do my best to update on both the assessment and in the consultant appointment as soon as I can.